In a fast-moving world, we all fall prey to the trap of doing too many things at once. Work, family, and other responsibilities pile up, and many of us feel like doing only one thing at a time is not enough. Too often, we turn to multi-tasking out of habit, convenience, or the need to accomplish more tasks than we have hours in the day. But rather than helping us get more done, multi-tasking can be detrimental to our work and lives in a variety of ways. As tempting as it may be, multi-tasking can have tragic and even deadly consequences.
Studies on Multi-Tasking
Studies show that only about three percent of us actually have brains wired to be able to multi-task, meaning to do more than one thing at the same time. As for the rest of us, when we try to do multiple things at once, we actually switch from one task to the other and both tasks suffer. You may think that you can watch television and respond to emails at the same time, but in fact, you are probably switching quickly between the two. In this scenario, your focus on both activities is not as strong as it could be, and your emails may be less coherent or take longer to accomplish. If one of the tasks is driving or operating heavy machinery, the consequences are much larger.
Switching back and forth between two activities takes a toll on both activities. As you multi-task and switch between activities, it takes some time to refocus your attention on the original task. Imagine you are driving with your full attention on the road, and you stop at a red light. Is it safe to pull out your phone now and check your emails, if you put it away again when the light turns green? Surprisingly, studies show that it takes 18 to 27 seconds for you to refocus your attention on driving – even after the light has turned green and you have put your phone down to drive. You still risk driving distracted if you use your phone at red lights because of the time it takes to regain full concentration on a task.
While we might be able to pat our heads and rub our stomachs at the same time, tasks with a more significant cognitive component require our full attention. Certain activities are more cognitively demanding than others, and tasks like driving rank high in terms of how much cognition they require. Definitions of multi-tasking vary among traffic safety experts; some consider multi-tasking to be two tasks of any kind (e.g., driving and changing the radio station), while others consider it to only apply to cognitive tasks (e.g., driving and talking on the phone).
Research has demonstrated clearly the degree to which multi-tasking while driving can affect concentration on the road. Using MRI technology, one study showed that a sentence listening task (in which participants answered true/false questions of increasing difficulty) reduced participants’ visual resources by 37 percent. The brain becomes overloaded; driving is a demanding cognitive task by itself, and the additional cognitive task of answering questions transfers resources away from vision to cognition.
Hands-Free is Not Risk-Free
As states passed laws prohibiting using a cell phone while driving, “hands-free” technology began to emerge in response. Today, drivers can use a Bluetooth instead of a physical cell phone. Drivers can now even use voice-activation to give commands and receive responses. However, as previously discussed, the cognitive demands of these activities remain, pulling the driver’s attention away from the road. One study measured the degree of cognitive distractions for tasks, rating them on a five point scale. Listening to the radio causes minimal risk distraction, ranked in Category 1. Talking on a cell phone, either handheld or hands-free (studies find the difference between the two to be negligible), was ranked in Category 2: moderate risk distraction. Listening to and responding to voice-activated features ranked at a Category 3, or extensive risk. The study proved that hands-free does not mean risk free; our brains can still become highly distracted even if our eyes and hands remain engaged.
The news is littered with examples of lives destroyed by distracted driving or multi-tasking while driving.
In April 2014, a Pennsylvanian motorcyclist suffered catastrophic injuries, later resulting in an amputation, when he was struck from behind by a tractor trailer. The driver’s phone records later showed that he had been engaged in a nine-minute cell phone call at the time of the accident. Had the driver been more focused on the road and not multi-tasking, he might have noticed the motorcyclist and stopped sooner.
In February 2014, a school bus driver was killed when involved in a distracted driving-related car crash on a highway in New Jersey. The vehicle in front of the school bus made a risky left-hand turn across a lane of traffic. The driver of a tractor trailer coming in the other direction had been on the phone for 25 minutes and did not notice the vehicle cut in front of him. Rather than hit the tractor trailer, he swerved into the other lane and crashed into the school bus head on. The driver was using Bluetooth, a hands-free device, but the distraction of the phone call was still enough to slow his reflexes and prevent him from stopping in time.
In August 2010, three young women were driving home on an Arizona highway when their car broke down in the middle of the road. A taxi driver in the lane behind them was momentarily distracted when his in-vehicle computer beeped to alert him to the location of his next fare. He looked away from the road to read the message on the screen, and crashed into the back of the stalled car. The car burst into flames, and all three women suffered severe burns. The taxi driver’s distraction, however momentary, tragically changed the lives of three young people.
The examples go on and on; the stories above are just a few of the victims Anapol Weiss has represented. The distracted driving story closest to our hearts, however, is that of Shareholder Joel Feldman’s daughter Casey, who was killed in 2009 by a distracted driver reaching across his car for an iced tea.
Creating Positive Change
Through his EndDD.org campaign, Shareholder Joel
Feldman has reached hundreds of thousands of
people in the U.S. and Canada. Below are a few
changes his organization has made to combat the
epidemic of distracted driving.
- Produced a distracted driving PSA for the
U.S. Department of Transportation
- Worked with Pennsylvania State Senators
Teplitz and Wosniak on proposed legislation
prohibiting handheld use of cell phones for
making or receiving calls while driving
- Brought the issue of distracted driving to the
Today Show on NBC and CBS Philly
- Spoke at the National Transportation Safety
Board’s first multi-model roundtable discussion,
“Disconnect From Deadly Distractions,” in
- Presented a science-based distracted driving
program to 300,000 teens across the country
at no cost to the schools
Pledging to Make a Difference
It is not enough to refrain from driving when intoxicated or overtired. It is not enough to avoid texting or talking on the phone while driving. Car crashes and other incidents occur all the time from simple inattentiveness. It only takes a split second to become distracted – by changing the radio station, fixing the GPS, reaching for a drink, taking a bite of a snack, or putting on lipstick.
The difficulty lies in the fact that human beings are inherently prone to distraction. At work, walking down the street, or behind the wheel of the car, we all experience the feeling of our minds jumping from one thing to another. Distraction is not a negative phenomenon in and of itself; it helps us to discover creative solutions to problems in our personal and professional lives. However, when driving, we take on a responsibility to conquer that tendency to the best of our abilities. Your life and the lives of those around you depend on it. Although everyone’s mind drifts sometimes, we can do everything in our power to minimize distractions by refraining from multi-tasking and dedicating 100 percent of ourselves to the task of driving a car.
Please take a look at End Distracted Driving (EndDD.org), an organization founded by Joel and his wife, Dianne Anderson, after Casey’s death. With the volunteered help of trial lawyers and other professionals, EndDD.org has reached more than 300,000 teens across the country with presentations on the dangers of distracted driving. EndDD.org’s family-centered safe driving agreement offers a checklist of simple steps you can take to avoid being a distracted driver. In partnership with EndDD.org, Anapol Weiss has a downloadable safe driving policy to promote safe driving habits among employers and employees. With these tools, families, businesses and communities can do their part to make the roadways safer and distraction-free.
Take a pledge with us to refrain from driving or operating equipment while distracted or multi-tasking.